To Disney World – and Beyond!

We’re back from our big vacation for the year! Debbi and I flew to Florida to visit her parents, and then spend several days at Walt Disney World with Debbi’s friend Lisa and her husband Jeff.

We flew out two weeks ago, on Friday November 6, on United Airlines, which is the only airline with direct flights from the Bay Area to Orlando. It’s the first time in quite a few years I’ve flown one of the so-called major carriers (we fly JetBlue to visit our families in Boston, and smaller carriers around the west coast), so I was a bit worried about the experience, but it was actually fine: The flight was only slightly delayed, and the seats were not as cramped as I had feared they might be. Once we landed we rented a car and drove a couple of hours (with a stop for dinner) to Debbi’s parents’ house.

Her parents live in a nice community on the Gulf coast. Once we arrived, we stayed up a bit late that first night since we were still on west coast time (and we didn’t get in until close to 9 pm).

The one downer to the trip was that central Florida was setting temperature records for the first few days we were there; Saturday it got into the 90s and had very high humidity, which made for a pretty nasty day to be outside. Despite this we went out to an art fair and got lunch at a restaurant and did not completely melt. But we were pretty motivated to spend much of the rest of the visit with her parents inside in the air conditioning due to the weather.

Sunday Debbi’s uncle (her father’s brother) and his wife came to visit for a few hours, so I got to see a bit of the family resemblance (and hear a little of the family gossip). Debbi thinks she hasn’t seen her uncle since her sister got married almost 20 years ago, and everyone had a good time.

We got up a couple of mornings to go running (me) and walking (Deb), which was about as rough as you’d expect since it was mid-70s and muggy even at 8 am. But the humidity did start to go down so the second day was a bit more pleasant than the first, even if it was still hot.

Monday we went down late in the day to the Venice chalk festival, but we got there just as the one rain shower of the week kicked in, so we went back again on Tuesday. It was pretty neat, even though we were there for the early stages of the drawing! A big 3D painting from the previous year was done in latex paint and was still there, and the same crew were working on a larger painting to set a world record. And there were several smaller pieces in progress. I observed that the references the artists were working from were stretched onto a perspective grid so they would have a 3D look when placed on the ground – a technique I remember my dad showing me when I was a kid.

Otherwise we had a pretty relaxed time visiting her parents. I spent a bunch of time playing The Room Three on my iPad (which is great – each installment has been better than the last), and I read one book and part of another. I believe Debbi got through a few more books, too. So, it was a good visit.

Oh, one wrench in the trip was that our cat sitter e-mailed us that on Monday the dish washer had somehow gotten filled with water and leaked onto the kitchen floor. It didn’t seem to have gotten too bad, but it happened the day of a big rain storm, which made us worry that something was backing up from the outside or that something else had happened. The sitter shut off the water to the washer just in case and said she’d keep an eye on it for us.

Wednesday we drove back to Orlando and dropped off the rental car. Lisa picked us up and we spent the evening at her house before heading to Disney World on Thursday. We stayed in a suite at the Saratoga Springs resort and took the bus to and from the theme parks. This was a bit annoying as they don’t run enough buses (in my opinion), and sometimes they get bogged down in traffic. But, so it goes. The suite itself was nice, though.

We last visited Disney World in 2007 with Debbi’s family, so we did things a little differently this time: We didn’t go to Animal Kingdom, and we spent more time in Epcot. Thursday we first went into the Magic Kingdom, followed by Epcot Thursday night and Friday, Hollywood Studios on Saturday, and back to the Magic Kingdom on Sunday. We used the FastPass+ system to plan out rides for the various days, and used Magic Bands for admission. These are new systems since we last visited, and which are not yet available at Disneyland, but they’re pretty convenient.

A big difference between Disneyland and Disney World is that the parks at Disney World are much larger. This has the advantage that you do not feel as packed in with the other people as at Disneyland, but it also means you have to walk farther to get between places, and that though it might not feel as crowded, it might actually be more crowded, and thus the lines for attractions might actually be longer.

Among the most fun things on this visit was Epcot’s International Food & Wine Festival. Epcot features exhibits from many countries around the world, and the festival set up booths where food and drink associated with each nation was available. And lots of it was really good! I especially remember some crispy pork belly, and an especially good glass of sangria. Of course, being Disney, I wondered how authentic the food selections were, and scratched my head at Argentina being referred to as Patagonia, and the lack of diversity of African stations (one was just called “Africa”!). But I didn’t worry about it that much.

The FastPass+ selections were handy for getting to some of the most popular rides, although it was strange not being able to just walk on to some of them if the lines were short as at Disneyland – because the lines were rarely short. It was also weird not knowing where many things were, or things being just a little different at the Magic Kingdom than at Disneyland (no New Orleans Square, no Indiana Jones). Some of the rides are slightly different too, such as some of the details being moved around on Pirates of the Caribbean or The Haunted Mansion.

Though we spent most of our time at the parks, we did come back on Friday to relax in the room for a bit, and came back early on Saturday and went down to the pool. Had we had more free time I might have gone running, since their running path was about the right length for the distance I’m currently running.

Anyway, we all had a good time. Debbi has been wanting to do this trip for several years, and we’d postponed it either due to my Mom’s health, or because I wanted to go to Cape Cod last year. I think she wishes we’d spent a couple more days at Disney World so we weren’t running around quite so much. Maybe next time!

On our flight home we bought first class seats, because for some reason they were a lot cheaper for this leg than for the flight out. And factoring in baggage fees and extra leg room seats – both included in first class – it was not a lot more than we would have been spending anyway. And it was pretty nice! Only two people per row per side, with a two-course meal for dinner (and better food than I’d expected), with wine and warm cookies added in. To top it off our luggage came out first on the other end. The only wrinkle was that we hit some nasty turbulence which caused Debbi’s wine glass to take a dive off her tray table and break, but at least it didn’t hurt anyone (plus it was empty).

We took today off from work to catch up on sleep and get some things done. And a good thing, too, since we both came down with colds, probably from the flight. Nothing too horrible, but definitely feeling under the weather.

Fortunately, no further incidents with the dish washer, even though there was another rain storm last weekend. Strange.

So that was our big fall trip! And now back to reality, and to brace ourselves for the holiday season.

Three Disney Films

Recently we watched the three most recent Disney animated films, and I wanted to write a few words about them.

The Princess and the Frog (2009), based on the fairy tale “The Frog Prince”, takes place in New Orleans in the 1920s where Tiana (Anika Nona Rose) wants to open the restaurant her father – who died in World War I – always dreamed of. Her plans are derailed when Prince Naveen (Bruno Campos) comes to town intent on marrying into money, and the villain, Dr. Facilier (Keith David) turns him into a frog in a scheme to get rich himself. The twist is that when Tiana kisses Naveen, she too turns into a frog, and the pair embark on a quest of personal and mutual discovery as they try to get changed back.

This film has bold and flamboyant characters somewhat reminiscent of Aladdin – particularly the jazz-playing alligator Louis (Michael-Leon Wooley) – and the dialog crackles effectively. Debbi liked the music a lot, and I enjoy it but felt they were bending over backwards a bit far to cover all the kinds of music in New Orleans and Cajun territory. I also felt there was a little too much “frog time” and not enough “people time”. I kind of felt like there was a story about Tiana as an adult woman rather than a transformed frog which I’d rather have seen. But it’s an enjoyable film, and the climax and denouement are both worth cheering for.

(I did wonder a few times during the film about how it willfully ignores the fact that slavery would have been in the living memory of people in the 20s, and the film’s awkward predecessor among Disney films with black characters, Song of the South. But of course it’s not in Disney’s nature to consider such things.)

Tangled (2010) is probably the weakest of the three films. Based on the fairy tale “Rapunzel”, it features the character of that name (Mandy Moore) being the daughter of a king and queen who is spirited away by Mother Gothel (Donna Murphy) who is using the magical properties of her hair to keep herself young. She keeps Rapunzel trapped in a tower at the edge of the kingdom, where Rapunzel sees the floating lanterns released each year on her birthday, and she longs to go see them up close. One day a thief, Flynn (Zachary Levi), stumbles upon her tower while on the run from both the law and his partners whom he’d double-crossed, and she captures him. She then extracts a promise from him to take her to see the lanterns, and they set out on a journey pursued by his ex-partners, by Mother Gothel, and by the King’s men.

Worst things first, I felt the songs in this film fell flat. None of them stood out to me or really stuck in my head after watching it. I also felt the villains were pretty weak, in particular Mother Gothel needed to be more of a big bad than just a schemer and manipulator. Not that seeing her defeat wasn’t satisfying, but she just didn’t feel very threatening. Maybe if she’d been a true wizard, or even the queen of a rival kingdom she might have had the necessary weight.

Flynn and Rapunzel are both fun characters, but the story ultimately belongs to Flynn. Partly because it’s the more flamboyant character, but also because he’s the one who grows and changes and gains redemption – and who ultimately is the one who makes the big sacrifice in rode to thwart the villain. Rapunzel is on a quest to discover who she is – because at the beginning she isn’t anyone – but the growth of a more complex character like Flynn just flat overshadows her arc.

The highlights of the film are generally the action sequences, which are very well-staged. Also Flynn’s act of sacrifice. But while it’s worth watching, it’s not one of the classics.

Then there’s the surprise breakout animated film of recent years, Frozen (2013), inspired by Hans Christian Andersen’s story “The Snow Queen”. A pair of princesses, Anna (Kristen Bell) and Elsa (Idina Menzel) are best friends as children, but Elsa was born with the power to generate cold and snow. After almost accidentally killing Anna, Elsa is put into seclusion by their parents, and Anna’s memories of Elsa’s powers are removed. Alas, their parents die at sea and Elsa grows up to become the new queen, but she’s unable to control her powers during her coronation, and takes herself into exile, also inadvertently dropping a magical winter over the land. Anna heads out to find her, and is helped by an ice farmer, Kristoff (Jonathan Groff), and an animated snowman, Olaf (Josh Gadd). Elsa’s powers again threaten Anna’s life, and a plot to take over the kingdom threatens all of them.

Frozen captured peoples’ attention partly for its soundtrack, which is surely very good. “Let It Go” has been almost unescapable in pop culture over the last nine months, and “Do You Want to Build a Snowman?” has also been popular. (For my money, the best song behind “Let It Go” is “Fixer-Upper”.) The other songs, and the orchestral music, are also quite good. If anything I think some of the tracks are a little under-orchestrated – one can rarely say that anything in a Disney film isn’t enough over-the-top.

It also grabbed some headlines because both main characters are female, and ultimately they solve their own problems (though Kristoff helps a little). The characterizations suffer some from both of the women being relative ciphers. To some extent they suffer from the same problem as Rapunzel, since both have grown up in isolation and they don’t have much in the way of backstory or personality. Anna’s central conflict prior to the coronation is that she wants something – anything – to happen to her. Elsa just wants to be normal and is frightened by who she is. This is enough to drive the plot, but it makes their motivations and characters pretty one-dimensional.

Like Tangled, Frozen involves a lot of running around, and at least the running around is fun and well-staged, which is good because there’s just not that much to the plot. But as with the other two films Frozen does stick the climax and resolution (even if its “true love conquers all” approach to solving Elsa’s dilemma doesn’t make any more sense than it usually does).

Reading about the film’s development, it does sound like fundamentally it suffered from not knowing what kind of story it was telling, and changing direction along he way. Even the core story between the sisters changed (for a while Elsa was apparently going to be a flat-out villain). It might have felt like a deeper film is Elsa had already become queen and something went wrong with her powers (a villain exposing her for his own gain, perhaps), adding more sophisticated elements to Anna’s coming-of-age story (because the coming-of-age story doesn’t really seem to fit Elsa).

I feel like I’m only saying bad things about Frozen, but it’s certainly not a bad film. It’s just kind of strange from a story construction perspective, but it is trying something outside of Disney’s usual comfort zone so perhaps it’s not surprising that it feels awkward (the supposed villains, for instance, feel basically bolted on, if not outright redundant). Anna’s quest and growth along the way are enjoyable and work fairly well, and have a number of entertaining set-pieces.

If you’re curious about the difference between a Tony-award-winning Broadway singer and a Disney pop princess, compare the cinematic version of “Let It Go” sung by Menzel and the music video sung by Demi Lovato.

Oh, on the Blu-Ray release don’t miss “The Making of Frozen”. Really, don’t miss it. Really.

Anyway, three Disney films. All of them flawed, two of them trying substantially new things for Disney’s oeuvre, and both feeling not entirely comfortable in doing so, but the more traditional one (Tangled) feels less artistically successful than those other two. But they’re all worth watching. Worth watching, that is, if you enjoy Disney films, because the stretching that the two films do isn’t enough to make them feel substantially different from what we’re used to from a Disney animated feature.

Sunday in the City

Friday night I surprised Debbi by taking her to dinner at Sundance The Steakhouse, which we’d last (and first) visited for my birthday this year. It was as good as it was the first time!

Saturday we took the cats to the vet, Debbi taking hers in for a 2 pm appointment, then me taking mine in half an hour later. She was in-and-out and ran into me as I was arriving. It took longer for my guys to get their check-ups. Newton seems to be doing well enough given that he’s taking thyroid medication. Jefferson, however, has some really crummy teeth and his gums are looking pretty bad, including a spot that’s bleeding. He’s lost 3 pounds in the last year, and it could be because he’s having hyperthyroidism himself, or it could be because eating has been difficult because of his mouth. And the vet said there’s a chance that he could have a tumor which is bleeding. So both cats are getting blood tests, and we’ll see where to go from there. My bet is that Jefferson “just” needs some dental surgery.

Still, for 15-year-old cats, that’s not really too bad.

We had a more exciting day today, since I wanted to go up to the city for Borderlands Books‘ 12-year anniversary sale. We left early and got breakfast in San Carlos, but realized that we’d be getting to the bookstore well before their sale started, at noon. We tried going into Golden Gate Park to visit the botanical gardens, but there was no parking. However, we saw a sign on the way for the Disney Family Museum, which recently opened in the Presidio, and decided to go check that out.

Even with a $20 entry fee, I figured there was still some chance that it would be little more than a few trinkets that Diane DIsney Miller had inherited from her famous father, perhaps with some notes on his life. But in fact it was much more than that, and we spent more than two hours going through it (and could have spent more time than that).

There’s not much left inside that looks like an old Presidio building – they clearly spent plenty of money to make it a modern venue, with computerized displays in addition to the memorabilia, and even a theater in the basement. The reception area has hundreds of awards that Disney was given during his lifetime (including most of his Academy Awards) on display. Inside is an impressive collection of photos of Walt and his family, and many DIsney memorabilia, including a polo cup he won, one of the trains he built for his home, the fiddle his father played, and many of his early drawings (some the originals, most reproductions). The earliest known drawings of Mickey Mouse are among he collection.

The narrative is well-written, although the layout of the individual rooms makes it sometimes difficult to know where to start, so sometimes you experience things out-of-order. While it admirable grapples with a few of Disney’s less shining moments (such as the early 40s animators’ strike), it oddly glosses overt the construction of Disneyland, which occupied Walt for several years and was one of his greatest accomplishments.

While some have cautioned that the museum is more about Walt and less about Disney, anyone interested in either the man of his company ought to enjoy the museum. It’s a good companion experience to the biography of Disney I read a few months ago.

After the museum, we stopped for sundaes at Ghirardelli Square, and then headed to the bookstore, where I picked up a few things, and we got to see Borderlands’ two hairless cats, Ripley and Ash, the latter of whom I hadn’t met before.

The only blemish on the day was having trouble getting dinner cooked (stuffed pork chops from the supermarket that took about 25 minutes longer to bake than advertised), and watching the Patriots mysteriously hand the Sunday night football game to the Colts by not punting the ball on 4th-and-2 at their own 30, leading by 6 with 2:30 left in the game. WTF??? The Pats lost 35-34. Gah.

But that aside, it was a day of pleasant surprises, so I can’t really complain.

Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination

Since my girlfriend is a huge Disneyland fan, I was finally motivated to pick up this biography of the man behind the mouse. I chose this book rather than a smaller volume because I figured if I was going to read a biography of Walt Disney, I’d rather get all the story, rather than something which made me want to go read another book with all the story. And on that score, Gabler mostly delivers.

It’s always a little awkward reading an extended sequence about the childhood of a famous man, since it’s rare that the childhood is truly interesting, but in Disney’s case, his youthful experiences seemed to inform his later life considerably. Gabler traces Disney’s childhood from his pastoral days in the small town of Marceline, to his teen years in Kansas City where he worked almost non-stop to help his hard-luck father keep food on the table. His two pleasures as a teen were drawing, and being a jokester and prankster. Following a turn with the Red Cross after World War I, he went into commercial art, where he soon was exposed to the nascent art of animation, and formed his own studio, which went under, and then he formed another one when he moved to California.

Gabler’s theory is that Disney’s efforts were largely dedicated to two goals: First, to form a community of friends and like-minded individuals to replace the family and friends he’d left behind when he moved to California, and later, to recapture and recreate the idyllic feel of small town America at the turn of the century. So he was driven to form and maintain his animation studio, and later to turn it to produce films and TV shows about the American past as he saw it.

Disney turned out to be at the right place at the right time, of course, innovating in the animation field when it was still brand new. But he was also a strong storytelling, idea man, and frequently had his finger on the pulse of popular culture, even if he didn’t really understand himself how he did it. But he was also a strong control freak, wanting the final word over everything his studio did, obsessively reviewing minute details and sending his staff back to the drawing board, and being unwilling to delegate authority, to the point of reorganizing the company whenever someone else started to accumulate too much power. To the extent that Disney could do it all himself, it worked, but in later years it became clear that much of the company’s success was due to the unheralded employees who worked on the features.

Still, Gabler doesn’t stint on crediting Disney himself and his studio with being innovators in their time, being among the first to adopt color and sound in their cartoons, transforming the prevailing style of animation in the early 30s with “The Three Little Pigs”, turning their properties into marketing gold mines, and of course practically inventing the animated feature film in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, as well as being the first Hollywood studio to fully embrace television in the 1950s and to create the modern theme park in Disneyland. In this way, the book reads like an early history of animation in America.

But Gabler also points out Disney’s flaws – and he had many, as a man and a manager, not least his tendency to lose interest in older projects when his studio was still on the hook for them, and turn to newer things while leaving his employees on their own without his guiding hand. Later in life he began to believe his own proverbial press releases, feeling he could change the world when in fact he was not quite an entertainer so much as the man behind the true entertainers (although he still did motivate some true innovations right up to his last years of life).

The book reads fairly quickly, for all that it’s a large tome of a book. It feels well-balanced, although I have little to compare it to. Its biggest failing is that after World War II it goes into less depth than I’d have liked, such as the nuts and bolts of building Disneyland (the opening day was a disaster, but little is said about it), or the studio’s later films. Relatively little about the nature of Disney’s legacy is said, as the book ends shortly after his death.

Nonetheless, it’s an insightful and informative book, and I’d recommend it to learn more about Walt Disney the man, as opposed to the myth behind the giant company.